Chapter Twenty-Three - Indiscretion
Professor Corbin was a plump, pleasant little man with a quick smile and less hair than the average pebble. His Prussian blue robes quivered as he set a copy of The Once And Future King on the checkout desk. “And how are you this evening, Mister Potter?” Harry forced himself to smile. There was no venom or cruelty in the way he said “Mister Potter”.
“Ready to get off work.” Corbin laughed.
“That I can understand. I worked in here myself for a couple of years after I left school. Of course, that was way back in the ‘fifties.” He glanced around while Harry checked out his book. A couple of students waved at him, and he eagerly waved back. After Snape, it must have been a pleasant change to get a Potions teacher who treated them like human beings. “Have you ever read it?” He nodded to the book.
“Uh, no, haven’t had a chance to get around to it.” One of these days he’d read Sev’s copy. If he could. The man’s attacks were nightly now, and he spent a portion of each day in a haze. Short spans of rest required a dose of Draught that should have left him permanently comatose. It was encompassing enough that Harry hadn’t even found a chance to mention the Pensieve yet. All he wanted right then was for the last three minutes of work to pass quickly so he could see how the sleepless bastard was doing.
“Neither have I. One of my students told me it’s wonderful. Nadja Alabaster? Do you know her?”
“Oh, yeah. How’s she doing?” Nadja had been mysteriously absent from the library lately. The last time Harry saw her she’d checked out four mediwizardry books, two novels, and three Potions texts. Harry dreaded seeing her again – it would just force him to admit once again that Sev probably wasn’t going to see forty-one.
“Excellent! I’ve very seldom seen anyone with such a gift for potions. Keep in mind, I worked in research for forty years before I decided to teach, so that’s saying something.” Research?
“What kind of research?”
He fluttered his fingers. “Oh, nothing important, really. Household cleansers, industrial solvents, the odd bit on synthetic textiles. Nothing flashy, but it paid the bills.” Harry’s heart sank. Professor Corbin continued, “I really should send that girl’s parents an owl, let them know how well she’s doing.” He gathered up his book. “Well, I’m off. Hopefully, you are too!” A quick, impish salute and Corbin waddled for the door.
Harry looked at his watch. Five twenty-nine.
Wylie bounced up to him with a copy of Pranksterism: How To Make People You Hate Really, Really Hate You Back (While You Win Friends!) in his hand. While the cover looked fairly dull, it was one of the best-read books in the library. Considering Mister Zonko himself wrote it, Harry really wasn’t surprised. It had extra charms placed on it to get it back on time. Fred and George, who’d checked it out more times than anyone in Hogwarts history, came in one day their final year and had to get Irma to separate them when the book clamped down on their hands the moment it went past due. It wouldn’t normally be a problem, but it happened at eight in the evening, and the library didn’t open again for twelve hours. They’d been a bit more careful about returning things after that.
Harry scribbled Wylie’s name in the cover, wrote “Burton, W.” in barely legible script on the filecard, and at five thirty sharp grabbed his things and bolted for the door. On the way out he nearly slammed into a white-robed figure. “That time again?”
“Hey, York.” He didn’t stop to chat with the Auror. He heard the library door squeak open from halfway and click shut. Evening rounds. At least Uden didn’t do hers while the students were out, not often anyway. Harry hurried along the wall to avoid students, and a few teachers. He nearly tripped over Flitwick, who’d incorporated the same technique. A few stammered apologies from both sides and he was around the corner, running down a nearly empty side corridor, around another corner, left, right, right, fast left, and two doors down to dig in his pocket for his wand. He muttered a quick “Alohomora!” and the lock clanked. He kicked the door closed behind him, pulling off his cloak. It was going to be too warm for it every day if the weather kept up. “I’m home!”
“We’re in here!” Professor Vector’s voice surprised him. Sev didn’t normally have guests. Well, if it were going to be anyone, it would be Vector. Severus was sitting in his chair with a teacup in his hands. The sugar bowl was nearly empty. Harry grinned. Snape’s sweet tooth was one of his best-kept secrets. (Harry had wondered what happened to the candy he confiscated after Hogsmeade weekends.) Fred purred happily from behind Harry’s chair. A pointy hat bobbed slightly “Severus was just showing me your puffskein.”
“Great, isn’t he?” Sev didn’t look amused. “Professor Lupin gave him to me. His name’s Fred.” Vector leaned around to look at him.
“I really don’t want to know.”
“Probably best you don’t.” Vector straightened her hat, stretched her legs and arms, and stood up.
“Ooh, my old bones.”
“Hush, woman. You’re barely thirty.”
“I’m thirty-six, for your information. Practically an old woman.” She dropped Fred in Severus’ lap and, to Harry’s shock, leaned down and smooched him full on the lips. Sev growled but it was quite obvious he kissed her back. “See you later, hotstuff.” Hotstuff? She grinned at Harry on her way out. “Take care of this cantankerous old letch for me, will you, hon?” She winked and let herself out. Harry finally blinked. He did so several times in a row, quite rapidly.
“Bloody woman. She’ll be the death of me.”
“What in fucking HELL was that about?” Sev looked up at him with mild cynical surprise. Fred snaked his tongue into the sugar bowl.
“She kissed you!” Harry found his hands curled into angry mallets.
“I shall kiss whomever I like. Certainly don’t see anyone else doing it.” Harry felt the accusation rake through his guts. His little indiscretion with William suddenly didn’t feel like such an issue.
“How long has this been going on?” He tried to control the tremor in his voice but rage got the better of him.
“Oh, perhaps eighteen years?”
“Eighteen years.” As long as Harry had been alive. Sev made a small noise of agreement and exchanged his teacup for a book. Something Wicked This Way Comes. How dare he. How dare he. “You. Bastard.” That explained Sev’s familiarity with Professor Vector. That explained his tolerance when she giggled so much about the two of them. Torn between screaming that he’d done the same thing and it was much nicer than anything he’d ever done with Severus (the whole concept of “honesty” being far gone) and storming out, Harry took the safer option. “Glad to know you’re not a complete poof!” He grabbed his cloak and stomped out of the suite.
He was nearly to the main door when he remembered Hagrid wasn’t there anymore. The sting in his eyes doubled. He nearly tripped over Flitwick for the second time when he turned around. They both jumped back just in time to avoid a collision. The teacher bumped into the wall. “Sorry, Professor.”
“No harm done.” Little Filius looked up, brushing off his robe. “What’s wrong, my dear boy?” Harry didn’t stick around to answer. He had no idea where to go but he went there anyway. The students he ran into parted, although a few called after him to stop. If she hadn’t flattened against the wall, he might have shouldered Ginny out of the way.
“What’s up your bum?”
“What is that, a family expression?” Ron had said nearly the same thing to him ages ago, back when he didn’t know about… well, anything, apparently! He wished desperately for a private office where he could hide. But, no, Harry had no place he could call solely his own. After god-knows-how-long he found himself at the foot of the Astronomy Tower ladder. It would be empty right then. Classes were out, Professor Sinistra would be on her way to dinner, and nobody in his right mind went stargazing at sunset. Wand clamped between his teeth, he climbed, stopping only to unlock the trapdoor and throw it open. Once inside he slammed it hard.
The sky to the west looked like someone had slashed it open and let it seep. Fine strata of cloud made a poor bandage, letting the bloodstain ooze into the thready parallel bands of orange, yellow, pink, blue, steely grey. He plunked his head on his fists and stared at it, silent tears streaming down his face. God. First, neither of them let on a peep for months. Then they went and kissed in front of him as if nothing was off! Harry felt ready to throw up. Gritting his teeth, letting the whole sordid predicament come to full bloom in his imagination, he watched the sky heal itself with darkness. The temperature dropped rapidly in the open tower. Icy wind wriggled through his clothing and pinched. His ears turned cold, then numb, as did his fingers. It mirrored the pit in his chest.
A few stars appeared in the deep blue sky not long before the trap door banged open. “It’s freezing up here! Come down, you’ll catch your death.”
“No.” He wasn’t going anywhere with Emily Vector.
“Harry, let me explain—“ he turned and glared icily at her.
“I think you’ve explained enough.” She stopped rubbing her green-clad arms and looked at him, stormcloud eyes curious.
“What do you mean? Did Severus say something?”
“Just that you two have been together for eighteen fucking years. When was I going to find out, my birthday?” She cocked her head.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She held out a hand. “If you want to shout at me, you’re more than welcome to. I’d rather do it someplace a bit warmer, though. My office?”
“I’d rather freeze.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She pulled out her wand and in a moment a cheery, toasty fire crackled in the middle of the floor. Harry resisted a strong urge to warm his fingers, which by now were rather blue. “I’m sorry if I shocked you. I tend to get a little overly affectionate sometimes.”
“Gee, I never would have guessed.”
Vector rubbed her hands next to the flames. “There’s nothing going on between Severus and me, and there never has been.”
“Right. Why did you call him ‘hotstuff’, then? That is what you call people you want to sleep with, isn’t it?” Vector looked genuinely hurt.
“Where did you hear that?”
“Around.” He settled down with his elbows on the ledge, back against the heat-leeching wall, perched on a large trunk of telescopes.
“Should I tell you the truth, or is it not worth my time?” Her large, round eyes had lost their usual sparkle, and her dark brows were pinched in the middle. She rubbed her long, straight nose.
“Better late than never.” Vector sighed and sat down on a wooden chair by the wall.
“Severus and I have been friends for about eighteen years, but that’s all.”
“Yes, really.” She frowned. “Can I tell you, or are you going to bite my head off?”
“Go on.” Harry felt a cold pang of victory when she dropped her gaze.
“Severus started teaching at the start of my seventh year. He was the same dark, mysterious, enigmatic figure he’d always been but before that I wasn’t old enough to appreciate it. We were students together, you know, not that we’d have anything to do with each other back then. Anyway, I developed a bit of a crush on the sorry git. Very schoolgirl fantasy stuff, kiss the frog and make him Prince Charming.” Harry snorted. “Tell me about it. Prince Alarming, more like. But, yeah, one Hogsmeade trip I finagled a couple dozen miniatures of Ogden’s Old. I hid them in my cloak and, after hours, snuck outside to get thoroughly pissed.”
“Uh-huh,” Harry said in a bored voice. She raised her eyebrows.
“Uh-huh. Gryffindorks don’t have the market cornered on being annoying little deviants, y’know. So, I was behind the greenhouses, not being too careful with my empties, when out of nowhere comes Severus. Caught me dead in the middle of knocking back my eighth one. Being the drunken, lovestruck girl that I was I offered him the rest of it. He confiscated the lot and told me to get to bed.”
“So then what?”
“I snogged him.” Harry growled. So that ‘never’ stuff about doing anything with students was just like the rest of it. “And then I fell over.”
Harry blinked scornfully. “You fell over.”
“Like a house of cards. From what I can tell he threw me over his shoulder, carried me inside, and dropped me outside Slyth. I know I woke up in the common room, but I don’t know how I got there. Severus still won’t tell me, but I suspect he got the password from Professor LeVert and dumped me on the couch.”
“How many points did you lose?”
“Ten.” Harry frowned stonily at her. “Really! He was a lot less… corporal in those days. Believe me, the hangover was punishment enough.”
Harry thought about this for a moment. “That doesn’t sound like Sev.”
“Well, it’s the truth.”
“So if Ginny Weasley wants him to be nice to her, all she has to do is kiss him.” The sarcasm dripped from his tongue. Vector glared.
“We didn’t become friends until I started teaching the next year and he wouldn’t stop picking on me about it! I snogged him again, he calmly informed me that I wasn’t his, ahem, type, and we’ve been kosher ever since.”
“So what was with that ‘hotstuff’ comment?”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me you’ve never tried to get under his skin.” Of course he had. He just wasn’t going to admit it. “The day I shag Severus Snape is the day I come out of St. Mungo’s renamed Emil. Not that I have any plans to. I’m quite happy with my bits as they are.” She crossed her arms indignantly; Harry felt his cheeks go warm. “Anyway, he’d die before he’d do that to you.” She scowled.
Harry sat quietly, gnawing the inside of his lip. What should have made him feel better only served to make him feel much, much worse. His lingering guilt over William came back stronger than ever. He wasn’t quite sure how he was supposed to face Sev. Of course, the bastard hadn’t told him any of this. But he might have if Harry had hung around. He sighed, furious with himself. “How did you find me?”
“Filius said at dinner you were upset over something. I took a wild guess at what, and asked around until I got an idea of where you’d run off to. It’s a good place to come and think, isn’t it?” She glanced around. “It’s also a bloody good place to come and… well, we won’t get into that. Certainly not on a night as cold as this, either.”
Harry grimaced. “Is there some Astronomy Tower Make-Out Club I don’t know about?” Vector smirked wickedly.
“Only for people who like to have sex inside a gigantic stone penis.” Harry’s face caught fire; he tried to hide it while Vector snickered and snorted. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” She broke down in a violent fit of giggles. After a minute she wiped her eyes and sighed. “A bit filthy-minded, I am.”
“Uh-huh.” Harry looked at her sullenly. He wasn’t in the mood to be laughing. Now he had to go downstairs, face Sev, and apologise for running out like he did. That was certainly the seed for a fun-filled evening. He started to get to his feet. Vector joined him, extinguishing the fire.
“Too cold to stay up here by myself,” she explained. Harry went down the ladder first, not terribly eager for her company. “I don’t have anything urgent to do. Want me to come with?” He shook his head.
“No, thanks. I’d kind of like some time alone.” She smiled.
“Okay, hon. Let me know how you two’re doing when you get the chance?” Harry nodded vaguely and started back the long way. He didn’t even look up when a bleary-eyed Uden passed him in the corridor.
“Alone, Potter? Did all the incarnations of evil have to go home?” He didn’t stop; he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.
“Piss off, Irene.” She looked a little surprised. He stormed away from her. For most of the walk Harry heard footsteps ten or so paces behind him but, when he finally reached his door, she was gone. He unlocked it as quietly as he could and wasn’t surprised to find Sev still sitting in front of the fire, Fred in his lap, three or four pages left to his book. “I’m sorry I ran out. Professor Vector found me and told me everything. M’sorry.” Harry hung his head, glancing up to see Severus’ reaction.
“Hmm.” He read a few more words and put the book down. He glared. “Are you going to sit down, or have you forgotten that your legs bend?” He patted his knee. “They’re called ‘joints’, very clever invention.” Harry flopped down in his chair, tugging at his cloak clasps. A second later Fred landed in his lap. The puffskein trilled with joy. “And what, pray tell, did Emily tell you?”
Harry shifted. The chair was unusually uncomfortable tonight. “That you were just friends.” He could feel the cold gaze settle on him. Nobody but Severus could make a look that solid.
“I would no more cheat on you than you would on me, no matter the situation between us,” he said quietly. Harry started trembling. Warmth rose in his cheeks and a blotchy hand stole to see if it was really there. He moved his eyes, neck rigid, to see Severus sitting perfectly still, only a flash of pained comprehension betraying him. “I see.”
“I’m sorry.” Sev’s thin hands folded on his lap. “I—“
“Man or woman?”
Harry swallowed. “Man.”
“Student or teacher?”
“Neither. It was over Christmas. We only—“
“I was under the impression only one of the Weasley herd practised the love that dare not speak its name. Perhaps I was mistaken?”
Harry hunched over. “His bloke, William. I only—“
Severus tsk’ed. “Very irresponsible, Mister Potter. Slashing your own throat is one thing, but doing it to someone else, that’s entirely another.” His eyes flashed dangerously.
“I only kissed him.”
“Just a kiss?” Harry nodded quickly, probably too quickly. “And you didn’t like it. Otherwise, I presume you wouldn’t have stopped there.” Harry felt like a starved mouse being baited with poisoned cheese.
“I liked it,” he hissed. He liked the feel of soft lips, of soft curls, of soft hands. He loved his Severus, but his Severus was anything but soft.
“Then why not more? In my experience you’ve certainly been enthusiastic. Why shouldn’t that extend to someone else?” That low, deep, dangerous voice slid over his skin like cool silk. “Hands trailing over robes, fumbling with a clasp, stroking a flash of skin…” Harry closed his eyes. His heartbeat quickened; a touch of vertigo started to claim his head. Sev’s voice twined with the memory of William’s touch. It had been so, so long since he’d been touched by anyone. He was afraid to open his dry mouth lest he whimper. The fire was too bright through his eyelids so he opened them instead. “But why stop there?” Severus leaned forward with his hands on his knees. His whisper meshed with the fire and Harry’s rapid breathing. “Off with the robes, off with everything underneath, bodies pressed together, hands exploring, perhaps he decides he wants a little more. Your shoulders pressed against the wall, his lips running down your throat, down your chest, down your belly, over your hips…” oh, god. Oh, god. Harry bit back a sob. He tried to fight his body’s reaction to that voice, so ironic in its cruelty. “Down, down, down, until…” Sev suddenly leaned back in his chair with a sneer. “Why did you do it?”
Harry’s muscles went limp. He sagged in his chair, part of him whimpering with lost desire, the rest grateful for the release. He swallowed and took a few ragged breaths. “Because,” he rasped between, “he reminded – me – of you.” The dizziness surged forth again. He leaned on his hands, elbows on knees, clutching painfully at his hair.
“But why kiss him? I presume you were free to leave anytime.”
Harry shook his head, finally getting his breath. “Couldn’t find the Floo powder.” It wasn’t a complete lie. Sev nodded thoughtfully behind his steepled index fingers.
“Ah, that explains why you haven’t used your broom. It’s defective.”
“No! I mean—no, it’s not defective, but I couldn’t leave. Mrs. Weasley—“
“Oh, yes, Molly Weasley. She obviously chained you down, fed you nothing but bread and water to keep you weak, so you couldn’t come back to the vicious monster who beat you.” Harry hid between his shoulders. Fred purred softly but it didn’t help.
“She got upset every time I tried to come back.”
“But you managed to escape nonetheless. Or did William’s darling—“ he snapped his fingers, trying to come up with the name.
“Or did Bill find you – in flagrante delicto, so to speak – and you only ran back to me out of fear?” Black eyes gouged great furrows from his soul. Those long fingers stroked the arms of the chair suggestively. “Come back to your consolation prize when you can’t have what you want – that must be it. He couldn’t have been ever so much like me if you tried so hard not to leave for so long—“
“I COULDN’T LEAVE! WILLIAM GAVE ME THE FLOO POWDER TO GET BACK HERE! THAT’S WHY I KISSED HIM!” His ears rang for a moment and stopped. The only sound was the fire crackling, barely marred by Harry’s harsh breathing. His fingers hurt; he realised he was warping the leather on the arms of his chair. With effort, they relaxed. His teeth clicked softly. Severus looked at him, expressionless. In a moment he picked up his book again.
“You’re forgiven.” He glanced up darkly. “This time.”
“Trust me, it won’t happen again.” Harry noticed the book was shaking ever so slightly. Irrational fear nailed him to his chair. Fucking Death Eaters. If not for them… at least he could give Sev a proper apology. He quietly stood up, set Fred on the table, walked into the bathroom, locked the door, and vomited twice in the sink. There wasn’t much, as he hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but in the mirror he caught a glimpse of himself panting violently, long orange tendrils dripping from his mouth. Cringing, he spat. The room reeked of bile. After a couple more heaves his stomach was completely empty. Harry rinsed out the basin. Clear water lapped over white porcelain, clearing away the noxious semi-liquid sludge. As he watched it drain he felt some of his guilt go with it. A strange thought occurred to him: Remus might have been right. Despite his overwhelming lust, if William hadn’t given him the Floo powder, would he still have kissed him? If it had been a simple stumble, Harry more likely would have apologized and slunk off, embarrassed. It didn’t justify what he’d done, it never could, but… true or not, it felt good to cling to such a noble, flawed concept. It made him feel a little less Slytherin.
Harry rinsed his mouth, drying his face carefully, and a couple of minutes later slipped out. Severus had finished his book and it lay on the table. Fred was purring in his hand. Severus stopped stroking the fuzzball abruptly and looked mildly embarrassed. Harry slowly let himself into his chair, keeping his eyes on Snape. Fred’s tongue trailed out and came back a moment later with a phoenix feather. He squeaked indignantly and the feather shot out, coming gently to rest on Sev’s leg. Harry giggled. Severus raised an eyebrow; he stopped. “You’ve been in my Pensieve again.”
“Are you ready to admit your theory is flawed?” Apparently, Snape had spent his minutes alone thinking of his own mortality. His long fingers began to stroke Fred again, and the little creature hummed and snuggled into his touch.
“Not after what Philia told me the other night.” Dark eyes snapped to Harry and narrowed.
“I asked if you’d been in my Pensieve, not my ingredients.”
“She told me about Curtus wanting to kill your mum after Eversor was born. And that she married him ‘cause her parents told her to.” A black eyebrow arched in suspicion.
Harry steeled himself. “She won’t tell me how to make the Unicorn Blood treatment because I didn’t understand when she told me how the poison works.”
“Tell me as much of how it works as you can.” Harry felt like he was in class again. This exam was far more important than pass or fail, though. He concentrated.
“The toxin magically binds to… synapses starting in the hippocampus, and it spreads through the brain.” He spoke slowly, watching Severus’ face for any reaction, good or bad. “There’s no natural defence, but it might be possible to induce one. Something about curing it and breaking magic bonds at the molecular level.” He prayed he’d gotten enough right. For all intents, he understood none of it. Sev sat quietly, looking at him, stroking Fred. Suddenly he was on his feet. The puffskein landed in Harry’s lap with a happy warble and Severus wiped the papers in front of the Pensieve to the floor. A moment later the stone bowl thunked on his desk.
“If you’ve lied to me, Harry, I won’t forgive you,” he warned. Harry got up and stood next to him, Fred in one hand and the other hovering an inch above Severus’ hunched back.
“I promise, I didn’t lie.” He could feel heat on his palm, the thick layer of potential that quivered on Sev’s skin and never allowed him to be truly calm. It would take so little to move that inch, to touch him, to go with him into the Pensieve—
Snape’s eyes drooped slightly as his thumb slid into the bowl. Harry jumped back. He didn’t expect it to happen that quickly. A harsh shudder went through the long, spare frame. Harry looked into the Pensieve. Black threads thrashed, roiling just beyond Sev’s thumb, like piranha fighting for a carcass. Harry’s heart skipped in terror. He threw Fred onto the bed and drove his fingers into the silver storm.
A/N: Hmm. Either Word doesn’t know how to count, or ff.net doesn’t. (I so need to switch to StarOffice.) I did another tally, and the word total so far is a little over 126,000. So, either I’ve somehow lost a chapter (which I heartily doubt), or there’s a bit of software someplace that’s got Original Pentium Syndrome. In the immortal words of Freakazoid, “Nutbunnies”.
So many thanks to HTB for pointing out some psychological details (which will greatly improve the last couple of chapters) it’s not funny. You have an endless supply of virtual chocolate coming your way.
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